Occupy Your Bathroom
One man's quiet fight to save your face, your bank account, and the environment from an endless case of shaving rash.
Story and Photography by TODD OPPENHEIMER
In the fall of 2011, Stan Hickam was a radiology technician in a small town in the rolling, rural Northeastern corner of Tennessee with an innocuous hobby: he collected old, corroded Gillette razors that no one wanted anymore, cleaned them up, and sold them on eBay. Unbeknownst to Hickam, at that time the world of manly men was discovering the virtues of vintage shaving gear with rapidly growing gusto. His razors quickly sold, he refurbished even more; they sold at even higher prices, and before he knew it, Hickam had a new business on his hands.
After his 30-something son-in-law told him exactly what you’d expect (“You need a website”), his business started gaining attention. Under the catchy name Above the Tie, Hickam and Matt Cole (the son-in-law) started to sell not only refurbished Gillettes but also select shaving accoutrements: packs of double-edge razor blades (which the old razors all require); tubs of old fashioned shaving soaps; and fine brushes made with badger hair, which he had made under his own brand name.
The multi-blade cartridges for today’s Gillette and Schick razors sell for around $3 to $4 apiece. By comparison, the finest blades in the world for the old-fashioned, double-edge razors cost no more than 50 cents apiece, and most sell for 10 to 20 cents each.
As business grew, and Hickam kept refurbishing more razors, he noticed some patterns in the ones he liked best. On some, the razor’s head was curved so perfectly that its surface grabbed skin as it slid over your face, lifting it slightly so the blade could cut stubble almost below skin level. Some were adjustable, allowing a person to vary the shave’s aggressiveness (based on skin type, beard thickness, extent of growth, facial curves, or any other variable). Some, called “comb razors,” were made with a row of little teeth below the blade; the combs tended to leave a touch more shaving cream behind, which created more glide. Some were made in three parts, which the shaver took apart and reassembled with every blade change—a system that yields a very stable device, but it’s fussy. For greater convenience, some were built as a single, multi-part mechanism, with “butterfly doors” that open with a mere twist of the handle. Unfortunately, none of these razors possessed all of these attributes in one tool.
All of which raised a question in Hickam’s mind: “Why don’t we just make some of our own?” When he went looking for a machine shop to do it, he ran into a series of obstacles that taught him a lot about why razor designs, and manufacturing in general, have declined so dramatically in the U.S. Just for starters, he discovered that the engineering capabilities for making a sophisticated, double-edge razor are virtually extinct.
In the 1970s, when Gillette moved into the more lucrative market of multi-blade cartridges and throwaway plastic razors, the company started selling off most of its manufacturing machinery for double-edge (called DE) shaving gear. One reason for the company’s new direction, aside from the market’s tendency to mistake novelty for progress, was the fear of competition. By this point, many of Gillette’s early, innovative patents had begun to expire. So if they were to continue dominating the market in men’s grooming, they needed to convince consumers that the concept of “new and improved” was real.
In 2012, when Schick released its new, five-blade “Hydro 5 Power Select,” a contributor to an online forum about shaving wrote the following: “I think the next innovation should be a shotgun shell that’s packed with DE blades, then you pack them in a 4-10 shotgun and shoot yourself in the face. Bam! Insta-Shave.”
To facilitate the process, Gillette and other razor manufacturers became experts at a kind of consumer shell game: As soon as customers grew accustomed to a new model, and returned to stores to buy replacement blades, they discovered that their razor had just been discontinued in favor of a newer system. The new model was of course built for cartridges that were supposedly better, smoother, faster—and, of course, loaded with even more blades. In 1998, for example, Gillette released the “Mach3” (signifying its three blades), which was soon followed, in rapid succession, by the Mach3 Turbo, the Mach3 Turbo Champion, the M3Power, the Mach3 Power Nitro, the Fusion Power Phantom—the list goes on and on. Gillette’s advertising claims for the M3Power were so extravagant that a U.S. District court blocked Gillette’s ads, calling them “literally false.”
Whenever this cascade of innovations has come up for discussion in the various Internet forums devoted to traditional shaving gear, the commentary gets pretty biting. In 2012, for example, when Schick released its new, five-blade “Hydro 5 Power Select,” one participant commented as follows: “I think the next innovation should be a shotgun shell that’s packed with DE blades, then you pack them in a 4-10 shotgun and shoot yourself in the face. Bam! Insta-Shave.”
Some of what makes the traditional shaving crowd so grumpy is the price of today’s multi-blade cartridges—$3 to $4 apiece. By comparison, the finest DE blades in the world cost no more than 50 cents apiece, and most sell for a mere 10 to 20 cents each. In a bit of commercial irony, the best DE blades today are made in countries not generally regarded as industrial giants—places like Russia, Poland, Pakistan, Israel, and Egypt. How can these countries make such high-quality blades? They were the first ones in line when Gillette got rid of its old DE equipment back in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
To make this irony even more painful, each cartridge’s manufacturing cost, a Gillette insider once reported, is less than a dime. That amounts to a markup of 4,750 percent. Partly for this reason, many traditional shaving loyalists have begun hoarding packages of DE blades, fearing the coming of what they call a “shave-pocalypse.” This is the day when Third World countries have so thoroughly embraced the West’s throwaway habits that they, too, dump the old DE manufacturing gear. At that point, the only blades on the market will be multi-blade cartridges—or Bic’s disposable plastic razors.
Should that day ever come, it would wreak havoc far beyond your pocketbook. Just in this country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some two billion disposable razors already end up in the landfill every year. Add in our cans of shaving cream—a full case of which would not equal what a traditional shaver can get from one good tub of shaving soap—and the environmental costs of today’s methods of grooming become staggering.
During the last decade, a handful of enterprising companies have noticed men’s growing frustration with all this throwaway grooming gear. Several have even tried to replicate Gillette’s venerable old adjustables, with all their tiny mechanisms for opening and closing doors for DE blades. But the results have been clunky, imprecise, and no match for the vintage adjustables, the best of which were made in the late 1950s.
This left Hickam only one viable option if he really wanted a razor that would stand above the crowd. He’d have to dream up a much simpler system for an adjustable, then find someone capable of making it. But the challenge inspired him, and made him feel connected to his community’s pioneering past. The quiet valleys and wooded hills in East Tennessee once hosted several historic battles of the American Revolution, and two of America’s most storied explorers: Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. And the family cabin (circa 1783) that serves as Hickam’s warehouse is within shooting distance of Clinch Mountain, home to legendary bluegrass king Ralph Stanley and his band, The Clinch Mountain Boys. “We come from a history of frontier grit,” Hickam says, “thinking you can do something on your own. So we kind of feel like we’re on the razor frontier.”
In late summer of 2012, Hickam packed a legal pad and took off for a weekend at Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. “There were a lot of pine trees around, and Spanish moss swayin’,” he says, “so it was a good environment to think. Very chill.” After drawing up some rudimentary designs, Hickam returned home, picked up a phone book, and started calling machine shops. Their responses stunned him: No one wanted the job. “Most of them told me they couldn’t make anything that precise,” he says. “One of them said, ‘Why would anybody want this?’ And I said, ‘Shouldn’t that be my problem?’”
When Hickam started calling machine shops to find an outfit that could design and manufacture his razor, their responses stunned him: No one wanted the job. “Most of them told me they couldn’t make anything that precise,” he says.
After trying and failing with some 30 different outfits, both in and outside Tennessee, Hickam finally called Wright Tool, Inc.—a relatively small machine shop in Piney Flats, a semi-rural industrial park about an hour south of Hickam’s home in Kingsport. A purchasing manager named Doug Haynes answered the phone, and Hickam explained his project, admitting that no other machine shop would talk to him. “Oooh, this is cool,” Haynes recalls thinking. “It’s old school. I said, ‘Come on in! You can sit in my office.'” After Hickam did just that, Haynes introduced him to Raymond Duncan, a manufacturing and design engineer. Duncan listened to Hickam’s story, then said, “We make parts for helicopters, so this is easy for us.”
Wright Tool was founded more than 35 years ago by a former Marine Corps machinist named Devoid Wright, who built the company’s business around an unusual form of specialization: picking up jobs that other shops have refused. “If a company puts work out to a shop like us, it’s because they’re having difficulty doing it in their own job shop. So we gotta figure out how to do it,” Wright told me the day I visited. He calls this business model “living off the bones.” Over time, those bones got pretty tasty. Wright Tool now makes everything from drill bits for coal miners to parts for satellite dishes, bomb-sniffing robots for the military, and tools for other toolmakers. One such toolmaker is Sandvik, a Swedish company that makes some of the finest stainless steel kitchen knives on the market. All of which makes Ray Duncan smile about the fact that Hickam had to call 30 shops before finding his. “We’re ‘W’ so we’re near the end of the book,” he said.
In September of 2012, Hickam and Duncan spent several weeks sitting together with Hickam’s legal pad drawings and a computer screen, trying out different designs and specifications. The whole idea of a DE razor was new to Duncan, who had always shaved with cartridge razors. But the shop’s engineering team was captivated by the precision Hickam was looking for. “We’re running this innocent little razor a lot tighter than we do for a lot of other customers,” Haynes told me. How tight? “In line with aerospace manufacturing,” Duncan said. In this shop, “tight” means really tight—the machinists here can cut parts to within tolerances of 1/10,000th of an inch. That’s four percent of the thickness of a human hair. Or, as Haynes puts it, “If you hold onto the part it will change the dimensions that much, just from the heat in your hand. That’s how tight we’re holding it.”
As might be expected from the shops that shied away from Hickam’s project, these kinds of numbers are not the norm. When I called one of the machine shops that declined the job, and asked what tolerances they work with, I was told “a couple of thousandths of an inch.” That’s five times more wobbly than a part made at Wright Tool.
The point here isn’t to fawn over one shop as much as it is to bemoan the decline of precision in all the others. For machine shop operators to say they aren’t sure they can make something as precise as what Hickam wanted is like a farmer saying he’s not sure he can grow grass. Precision is what machining is all about. And the same goes for manufacturing. If machine shops across the country can’t make a simple razor, no wonder China is stealing our lunch.
Then again, if you’re really committed to precision, sometimes you can get your lunch back—despite its expense. Devoid Wright—a former karate teacher with a sixth-degree black belt, and a master’s degree in metals technology—told me a story proving this point. A few years ago, one of his customers contracted with manufacturers in China to make gearboxes for some satellite communications equipment. “He got it back for less than it costs me to buy the materials,” Wright said. “After they bought about a hundred of ‘em, he brought ‘em to me to fix. I could have made these parts from the beginning cheaper than it cost me to fix them. Because nothing lines up. There are no tolerances there. Nothing. So they scrapped them all and I’ve been making them ever since.”
With capabilities like this, one would think that Wright would be shaving with the razor he made for Hickam every chance he gets. When I asked him if he does, he smiled, paused, and said, “I do use it, on the days I got the time to be slow.”
As Duncan refined Hickam’s designs, he took a closer look at Hickam’s favorite vintage gear, carefully measuring their signature features. Then he ordered a production run of 300 parts. That was enough to create three-piece kits for 100 razors, all made of solid stainless steel. Before all that steel was cut, however, there had to be a prototype—and a guinea pig. All fingers pointed at Duncan. “Devoid told me, ‘You drew it up, so you take it home and shave with it,’” Duncan said. “’If it rips your hide off, let me know.’” Duncan did as he was told, and was pleasantly surprised. “I really liked it,” he said. “I have trouble with my skin breaking out, and with these I don’t have that.”
Hold on a second. On its first production run, a little Tennessee machine shop beats out the billions that Gillette has spent for decades on multi-blade shaving systems? How can this be? It turns that Duncan’s experience is widely shared—in fact, this paradox is a big reason that men turn to traditional shaving gear of any kind. In one of hundreds of posts arguing this point in internet shaving forums, toolsofmen.com notes the following: “…a cartridge razor is VERY susceptible to clogging. When clogged, bacteria will start to build up, then BOOM: razor burn.” The writer argues that this problem compounds markedly with one of today’s “high-end,” ultra-multi-blade cartridges. “If you don’t change it regularly, suddenly you have 5 dull blades packed with bacteria going across your face.”
One reason Duncan may be having such luck on his morning shave is that he uses one of Hickam’s “slant” razors, a design first created in the early 1900s. The parts for these razor heads are shaped with a bias, which slightly twists the blade. This twist encourages the razor to cut at an angle, creating a shearing action that slices through stubble more cleanly than a standard razor’s push-cut. But Duncan has another theory for why slants are so effective: When a thin material like a razor blade is twisted, it becomes rigid, and thus stronger. To prove his point, Duncan picked up a simple 8×11-inch piece of copy paper and twisted the edge. Sure enough, it immediately stiffened. “I’ve never read that anywhere,” Duncan said. “I just figured that out by making these.”
Duncan’s theory turned the tail end of our visit into a long bout of theory-trading regarding how sharp edges behave. The conversation left everyone pondering new possibilities for Above The Tie razor models. Their collective fantasies have undoubtedly been helped in part by the team’s success: Since starting production in October 2012, Hickam’s razor sales have doubled every year. This might seem surprising, given these razors’ costs: $150 for a typical 3-piece. But when you consider how long they will last (potentially forever), that’s a lot cheaper than modern-day handles, given their non-stop upgrade parades. At one point, the team joked about creating a ladies’ razor, sold under a subsidiary, of sorts, called “Above The Ankle.” Lori Smithdeal, one of the machine operators at Wright Tool, might love one of these because she finds Hickam’s current models a little frightening. “They work good,” she told me, “but you gotta really be careful, because they’re sharp.”
On a spring morning in 1895, a man named King Camp Gillette found himself staring into his bathroom sink, frustrated with the dullness of an early model safety razor, and the fact that sharpening it meant a trip to the barber shop. “As I stood there with the razor in my hand,” Gillette wrote later, “my eyes resting on it as lightly as a bird settling down on its nest—the Gillette razor was born.”
Ten years later, with a new patent in hand, Gillette launched America’s first national advertising campaign. Before any other business leaders even understood what these campaigns meant, Gillette was rocketing toward success. At one point he became the world’s most well-known man, simply because billions of blade wrappers around the globe were emblazoned with his carefully groomed, mustachioed image.
Although Gillette is most famous for becoming a master capitalist, his real dream was utopian: The world, he believed, should be organized as one, gigantic corporation run collectively by the people, who would live in enormous communal towers. Gillette was so passionate about this idea that he published a book about his vision entitled, “The Human Drift”. The book first appeared in 1894, well before he’d become a capitalist himself. But in the years to come, no matter how successful and busy he became, he continued returning to his dream—tweaking it, rewriting it, enlisting new partners to help promote it. By the time Gillette died, in 1932, he was clearly a conflicted man—divested of all but a shred of his razor company, and with virtually no audience for his utopian dreams.
If the old razor king were alive today, he might love watching Stan Hickam’s efforts to shake things up. At this point in our history, when reducing unnecessary trash requires such communal, global effort, Gillette might be leading the charge to return to his old double-edge shaving systems.
Editor’s Note: For a guide to the best of the best in traditional shaving gear, please read our article, “Real Shaving: a Gift Guide,” by Michael Ham (known on the internet as Leisureguy). Ham is one of the world’s most prolific collectors and writers on this topic.